Sunday, June 13, 2010

Myths of UI Design

Because user interface design is not an established and recognized discipline, the vacuum is filled by all sorts of people with very different skills.

MYTH: Good user interface developers can both design and code the user interface.

REALITY: An analogy would be to ask an HCI expert to design the user interface and the internals, and then go ahead and code the product. User interface coders implement designs; their skill is designing and coding the internals. Mitch Kapor's (1996) ideal of a software designer as distinct from software coder is not the current practice. Typically, user interface design is done by a coder on a part-time basis. This practice is attributed by Terry Winograd (1996) to the immaturity of software development. In building construction, the division of labor between architect and contractor evolved as the industry matured. Occasionally, an exceptional software developer can both design and code the user interface, but the majority do not have the critical skills for user interface design. These include:

  • The ability to apply the principles of navigation, selection, direct manipulation, consistency, and standard interaction styles
  • The ability to apply user input to design (wants and needs, tasks and scenarios, competitor information, feedback on user interface designs)
  • A grasp of high-level design (metaphors, user models, systems design, usefulness and conceptual consistency, task flow)
  • An understanding of user interface paradigms (form-based, menu-based, application-oriented graphical user interfaces, multiple-document interfaces, object-oriented interfaces, compound-document interfaces) and knowledge of what makes a good hybrid

Of course, a coder needs to appreciate design (just as a designer needs to appreciate implementation constraints). Each has their own expertise. Communicating their designs is at least half the job for user interface designers. This task continues right up to the product ship date, in order to avoid the "last person to touch the code is the user interface designer" phenomenon. Communication between practitioners of these two disciplines is a fascinating subject worthy of further analysis.


Kind regards,